Wednesday 30 December 2015

The Gimme LEGO Awards 2015

Welcome to the 2015 Gimme LEGO Awards and my annual end-of-year trawl through the good, the bad and the ugly of the year viewed through LEGO spectacles. This is the five year anniversary of the awards and as ever my selections are entirely subjective so please feel free to leave a comment if you think I've got it badly wrong....

1. Best Theme

Last year's winner: The LEGO Movie

2015 winner: LEGO City

Surprised? Yes - me too. It's all too easy to dismiss the perennial City theme on the basis of the tiresome and interminable Police and Fire rehashes - God knows I often fall into the same trap myself - but dig a little deeper and you'll realise that in 2015 the City theme has actually offered a wealth of superb and varied sets.

Let's get the negatives out of the way first. Fire did make an obligatory appearance in 2015, but it was in the form of just a single small starter set, and we were furthermore spared any standard Police rehashes this year. Also, POOP tends to be more prevalent in the City theme than it is in other themes, and this year was no exception. In mitigation, however, it's used sparingly and judiciously; indeed, one of the better City sets of 2015, Set 60095 Deep Sea Exploration Vessel (below), likely wouldn't have seen the light of day without it.

Having quickly dealt with the minor gripes it's time to start highlighting the positives. Firstly, Swamp Police. Yes, I know it sounds stupid and probably shouldn't work, but the sets are almost universally excellent, featuring some interesting structures, unusual vehicles such as airboats, hovercraft and tracked vehicles, an interesting parts selection, and even occasionally worthwhile scenery. I vowed to cut down on my spending this year, and City sets were top of my "must resist" list, but despite that I just couldn't stop myself picking up a couple of the Swamp Police sets as they're so neat.

Next up for praise is the Deep Sea Explorers subtheme. Consisting of six sets, I first got my hands on the full line-up while doing a review for Bricks Magazine and was really impressed with the set designs, with Set 60092 Deep Sea Submarine (below) particularly standing out for its realism and play value. Another highlight is the previously-mentioned Set 60095 Deep Sea Exploration Vessel which looks great and is literally dripping with play features.

LEGO City also gave us a handful of welcome Space releases in 2015, with the highlight being Set 60080 Spaceport (below) featuring a good-looking Space Shuttle complete with external fuel tank, solid rocket boosters and a mobile launch pad. Other notable City offerings in 2015 include an attractive new cargo train in the form of Set 60098 Heavy-Haul Train, and Set 60097 City Square.

Overall, a very impressive showing for LEGO City in 2015, and a richly-deserved Gimme LEGO Best Theme award, the first time that LEGO City has achieved that feat - well done to the design team!

Honourable mention: LEGO Ideas. Having merited an honourable mention last year, LEGO Ideas once again delivered. Of the four Ideas releases, all seem to have been well-received; only Set 21302 The Big Bang Theory fell short as a LEGO set in my opinion, and even that one was a hit with the TV show's legions of fans. Ideas is far from perfect, with its reliance on I.P. rather than genuinely innovative original creations its main achilles heel, but even so if it keeps delivering sweet hits like Birds, WALL-E (below) and Doctor Who then I won't be complaining; let's just hope that the ridiculous controversy over the Ghostbusters Firehouse HQ doesn't convince the LEGO Company that Ideas is more trouble than it's worth....

Honourable mention #2 : Ninjago. Back from the dead. Literally. Only LEGO knows the truth, but the story goes that LEGO killed Ninjago to make way for Chima, the next big thing. Except that despite a hugely stripped-down output in 2013 and 2014, Ninjago refused to die, and to their credit LEGO listened to their fans and breathed new life into the theme with an impressive set line up in 2015. You could admittedly accuse LEGO of a somewhat scattergun approach to the Ninjago releases this year - they've pumped out a staggering 46 Ninjago sets in 2015 including magazine promos - but within those 46 sets are a surprising number of gems. Set 70751 Temple of Airjitzu is obviously the stand-out, but Ninjago 2015 is far from being a one-trick pony, with the likes of Set 70737 Titan Mech Battle, Set 70734 Master Wu Dragon and Set 70738 Final Flight of Destiny's Bounty also catching the eye, amongst others. Surprisingly strong.

2. Most Disappointing Theme

Last year's 'winner': Not awarded

2015 'winner': Not awarded

Not awarded again? Indeed. Sorry to be so non-controversial, but once again there isn't really a theme bad enough to merit the wooden spoon this year. OK, so I do have continuing reservations about the DC and Marvel Super Heroes themes and their minifigure-centric design choices which come at the cost of some rubbish builds, but even those mediocre themes are saved by a sprinkling of decent sets (Set 76035 Jokerland anybody?) which would make a 'worst theme' gong seem unreasonably harsh. So no standout candidate this year, then, and therefore no award.

3. The "Medieval Market Village" award for Best Non-Licensed Set

Last year's winner : Set 10243 Parisian Restaurant

2015 winner: Set 70751 Temple of Airjitzu

Wow - where did that come from?! It seems like every year one of my 'Best Set' awards, be it licensed or non-licensed, goes to an offering which has emerged from left-field with a minimum of fuss or fanfare - the likes of Set 70810 Metalbeard's Sea Cow and Set 10228 Haunted House immediately come to mind. That trend continues this year with the sumptuous Temple of Airjitzu.

Given the enduring popularity of the Ninjago theme, its rehabilitation in 2015 wasn't perhaps entirely unexpected, but what was a surprise was the appearance of a big AFOL-oriented Ninjago set, particularly one of this undoubted quality.  With its mix of interesting colours together with a nicely-integrated selection of buildings - the temple itself plus a blacksmith's workshop and a smuggler's market - it has a definite hint of Japanese-themed Medieval Market Village about it, and that impression is further reinforced by the inclusion of a host of attractive little details and clever building techniques. Look at some of the neat curved roof sections above, for starters, not to mention that wonderful bridge....

The attention to detail extends to the interior of the buildings which are furnished and incorporate a number of play features, most notably an illuminated spinning shadow theatre at the base of the temple (above) which uses a light brick and a crank to create the effect, while the inclusion of a dozen minifigures, some of them exclusive to the set, help to bring the beautifully crafted oriental scene to life.

This is a beautiful, grown-up set, and you can buy with confidence regardless of whether you're a Ninjago fan or not. Wonderful!

Honourable Mention: Set 10246 Detective's Office. LEGO has been cranking out superbly-designed Modular Buildings for so long now that I'm starting to get the feeling that some AFOLs are beginning to take them for granted. There's no sense of complacency so far as the design of the Detective's Office is concerned, however. Levels of external detail remain extremely high, and the use of clever building techniques continues to amaze and educate - check out the design of the balustrades in the picture below, for example. Interior detail, meanwhile, is typically impressive with a host of neat interior features and furnishings shoehorned into the set.

Overall, the Detective Office is superbly realised, with its clever design on this occasion being driven by an amusing back-story. It's blessed with a ton of wonderful interior and exterior detail, and if I'm honest it probably loses out to the Temple as much by virtue of being "just another excellent Modular" as anything else. Unreservedly recommended.

Other notable candidates: Set 31031 Rainforest Animals, Set 31039 Blue Power Jet, Set 60095 Deep Sea Exploration Vessel, Set 10247 Ferris Wheel, Set 70173 Ultra Agents Ocean HQ

4. Best Licensed Set

Last year's winner : Set 70810 Metalbeard's Sea Cow

2015 winner: Set 75060 Slave I

Given that fans of LEGO's long-running Star Wars theme had been waiting patiently for fully 15 years for a UCS version of Boba Fett's iconic Slave 1 craft, there was always going to be the potential for disappointment and anticlimax when LEGO finally got around to releasing one. Thankfully, any trepidation was quickly dispelled when the set hit the shelves.

We need not have worried - it's stunning. At almost half a metre long and comprising almost 2,000 elements it's also huge, not to mention richly detailed and accurate - everything LEGO Star Wars fans could have wanted, basically, right down to its display stand and UCS plaque. It's tough as well - unlike some of the older UCS offerings which would fall apart in a soft breeze, Slave 1 is made of stronger stuff. You can even grab it and swoosh it and it'll survive to tell the tale.

Like its UCS brethren before it, this version of Slave 1 is first and foremost a display model. Even so, it still manages to incorporate a slew of features such as hidden weapon compartments, a rotating cockpit and wings, an opening cargo bay door, and rotating twin blaster cannons. All things considered, it's pretty much the perfect UCS set, and one of the very best Star Wars offerings for literally years in my opinion - magnificent.

Honourable Mention: Set 71016 Kwik-E-Mart. I'm no particular fan of the Simpsons, but even then I couldn't fail to be impressed by the Kwik-E-Mart. Although this model could comfortably pass for a typical U.S. convenience store in anybody's City layout, it's far from being the most eye-catching or imposing set from the outside; really this 2,179-piece monster is all about the interior and the incredible attention to detail. While stickers are predictably prominent in recreating a realistic interior, there are thankfully lots of printed elements used, a number of which are unique to the set. The build is packed to the brim with references to the show and as such the set provides superb fan service, but there's also more than enough to engage those without a passion for The Simpsons but who are looking for a big, interesting and detailed build.

Other notable candidates: Set 10248 Ferrari F40, Set 75902 The Mystery Machine, Set 21303 WALL•E, Set 21304 Doctor Who

5. The "Phantom Menace" Award for Most Disappointing Set

Last year's winner: Set 76014 Spider-Trike vs. Electro

2015 winner: Set 10249 Toy Shop

Let's cut to the chase: this set is a stinker - a lazy and massively disappointing re-release. I know that I wasn't the only person to cringe in embarrassment as I watched the official LEGO Designer Video and witnessed poor Morten try to suggest that Set 10249 wasn't in fact basically the same as Set 10199 Winter Village Toy Shop; just to be clear, a few inconsequential part substitutions do not a new set make. For every LEGO fan pleased to be able to get what is effectively a copy of a retired set at less than the inflated aftermarket price, there's another LEGO fan (myself included) who was eagerly anticipating the latest instalment of what has become a popular Christmas tradition and who is now bitterly disappointed.

It seems bizarre for LEGO to consciously take a decision which was always guaranteed to unnecessarily alienate a part of its fanbase - they surely can't have failed to foresee the negative reaction. Word on the street is that we didn't get a 'new' Winter Village set this year because all the designers were busy on other projects; I'm not sure how credible this is, but if true then it's a really short-sighted decision considering the popularity of the Winter Village line and the way that so many fans have taken it to their hearts. Whatever the reason, the release of Set 10249 was a big misstep in my eyes, and let's hope that it's not a taste of things to come.

6. Best Minifigure

Last year's winner: Itchy and Scratchy

2015 winner: The Eleventh Doctor

All my awards are inherently subjective to some degree, but with the explosion in quality of LEGO minifigures over the past few years I think that's doubly the case so far as the 'Best Minifigure' award is concerned. The fantastic, intricate minifigure designs that we're seeing, in tandem with the stellar print quality, make it pretty much pointless to try and pick a winner on the basis of technical merit. Which is kind of liberating, in a way, as it means I'm free to choose on more esoteric grounds....

As a nerdy Brit of a certain vintage, I've loved Doctor Who for almost as long as I've loved LEGO; given the prodigious speed that the LEGO Ideas Doctor Who submissions accumulated 10,000 fan votes I'm evidently in good company, and many rejoiced when LEGO did the right thing and greenlit a Doctor Who Ideas set for production. This in turn made it inevitable that my toughest job in choosing Best Minifigure this year was merely to decide which of the two versions of the esteemed Doctor included in the set I should give the award to.... In the end The Eleventh Doctor edges it, mainly because at this point Matt Smith has seeped into my consciousness slightly more than Peter Capaldi has. The figure itself is nicely realised, and I like the way that the jacket print continues downwards from the torso to the legs, but it truth there's nothing especially technically outstanding about this minifigure - it's all about the Doctor!

Honourable Mention: Scooby-Doo

I'm actually dubious whether Scooby-Doo even counts as a minifigure, but that's the great thing about hosting your own awards - you can make up the rules as you go along.... Scooby-Doo was another chunk of my childhood that LEGO chose to immortalise in ABS in 2015, and LEGO Scooby himself was everything I hoped he'd be - goofy-looking, grin-inducing and delectable. And just to seal the deal, bloody Scrappy was nowhere to be seen - Scooby-Dooby-Doo!

Other contenders : Collectable Minifigures Series 13 Hot Dog Man, Collectable Minifigures Series 14 Plant Monster

7. The "Better than Expected" Award

Last year's winner: The LEGO Movie

2015 winner: LEGO Dimensions

Although the allure has admittedly started to wane, I've been a huge fan of TT Games' LEGO offerings for years now and have played my way through many of them. Having staunchly resisted the lure of the "toys-to-life" craze until now, however, I wasn't convinced that I needed LEGO Dimensions in my life. The developers were very clever, though, gradually adding an ever more appealing collection of third party I.P.'s to the Dimensions roster to tempt me in, to the point where it was hard to resist. I think Portal 2 was the clincher; once I knew that Chell and co. (below) were on the way, and that I'd effectively be able to play Portal within a recognisable LEGO world, I decided to take the plunge.

I went in with my eyes very much open, however; my scepticism of the toys-to-life craze has largely been founded on the belief that the USP is a shallow gimmick which, when all is said and done, doesn't really add anything meaningful or profound to the actual gameplay. Sure, there's something cool about watching a real object warped into a virtual world, but once you've seen it a few times.... Still, if ever I was going to throw myself into the fray and give it a chance, the time was now.

The fact you're even reading this would suggest that Dimensions has won me over, and to an extent it has. Firstly, I think the involvement of LEGO has enhanced the genre, insofar as it's not just a case of dropping pre-fabricated junk onto a pad before losing it under the sofa - there's actually a LEGO Vortex to build, plus characters, objects and vehicles to assemble, prior to warping them into the game. OK, so the construction isn't strictly necessary - the LEGO Toy Pad and character bases function perfectly well without it - but for the LEGO fan it undoubtedly enhances the experience. Also, the game requires some degree of subsequent interaction with the characters and Toy Pad, for instance moving them from one sector of the pad to another at certain points during the proceedings. Again it's far from perfect, and it even feels contrived and a bit irritating at times, but at least there's the possibility of moving the mechanic beyond pure gimmickry to something potentially worthwhile.

Thankfully the game itself is pretty good, for the most part - vintage TT Games fare - and overall I'd have to say that the involvement of the Toy Pad and other accessories has enhanced the overall experience. Better than expected then, although I can't give Dimensions an unreserved thumbs-up by any means - the high cost of the character packs, plus the fact that you now need to pay extra to access game areas that would previously have been unlockable for free, make it hard to love Dimensions like I loved TT Games' previous output.

8. Most Welcome LEGO-Related Announcement

Last year's winner: UCS Slave 1 incoming

2015 Winner: Set 75827 Firehouse Headquarters

I have to admit that I was highly sceptical when I heard the whispers about a Ghostbusters Firehouse release - a set of the size and scale quoted seemed just too niche, even for LEGO. I should have known better, though - any company capable of putting the likes of Set 70810 MetalBeard's Sea Cow into production isn't averse to confounding expectations with a few bonkers releases.... Even so, I think LEGO have outdone themselves this time - at 4,634 pieces, Set 75827 Firehouse Headquarters is absolutely massive, with the third largest parts count of any LEGO retail release ever and 2,000 more elements than the Sea Cow.

Regular readers of Gimme LEGO will know that I have a long love affair with Ghostbusters, having previously chronicled the design and construction of my own ECTO-1 and Ghostbusters Firehouse HQ MOCs here on the site. Having already got my hands on the official Firehouse set, however, I can confirm that it's of a different order of magnitude to my own efforts; its use of predominantly double-walled construction techniques means that it's solid and weighs a ton, while the incredible attention to detail lavished on most of the interior spaces will delight LEGO fans, not to mention taking them many hours to complete the build.... It'll be available at retail in just a couple of days, so start saving....

9. Gimme LEGO Reader's Choice Award

Last year's winner: Set 10243 Parisian Restaurant.

2015 winner: that's up to you!

Now it's your turn.... At the top of the page on the right of the screen you'll see a selection of LEGO sets which I consider to be some of the best that 2015 had to offer. Please vote for your favourite set! If your favourite isn't on the list then select 'None of the above' and leave a comment below or send me an e-mail via the contact button letting me know which set you think is the best of 2015. Cast your vote - one person, one vote - and at midnight on 14th January the poll will close and we'll have our winner.... If you're reading this on a device which isn't displaying the poll as described then click "view web version" at the bottom of the page in order to see the nominations and cast your vote. Thanks!

*Voting has now closed - click here for the results!*

Previous Gimme LEGO Awards: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011

Tuesday 1 December 2015

A Good Investment?

When it comes to LEGO everything is awesome, or so we're told; certainly AFOLs have every reason to be cheerful right now thanks to the success of the LEGO brand and the sheer volume of excellent sets currently available at retail. Even so, there are a few topics that are still guaranteed to provoke passionate and at times angry debate within the AFOL community, and the thorny subject of reselling is definitely one of those.

Set 10179 UCS Millennium Falcon (2007). RRP $499.99. Price now $3,450 (new), $2,064 (used)

At the risk of stating the obvious, reselling in this context is basically the act of buying up currently available sets and then selling them on for a profit at a later date. Reselling typically occurs after LEGO have stopped making a particular set and supply of that set has dried up, although it's also seen in the short term ('flipping') at times of product shortage when a popular item is temporarily sold out, for instance around Christmas or other holidays.

Set 10182 Cafe Corner (2007). Retail price $139.99. Price now $1,671 (new), $736 (used)

So why is reselling such a divisive issue within the LEGO fan community? Well, critics of reselling highlight multiple concerns. For starters, some LEGO fans clearly feel deep discomfort at what they see as the commoditization of the LEGO hobby by individuals who they perceive as not having any interest in the brand itself and who are only in it for the money. There's also resentment at being "held to ransom" by speculators when trying to buy retired sets, and accusations that resellers are often guilty of greedily emptying the shelves of discounted sets, thus denying other LEGO fans access to bargains. Furthermore, resellers are accused of themselves precipitating shortages of in-demand items by buying up large quantities of stock, sometimes circumventing retailer limits in the process, only to then 'flip' the items at a profit and thus take advantage of the shortage that they themselves have created.

Set 10196 Grand Carousel (2009). RRP $249.99. Price now $2,278 (new), $1,215 (used)

The flipside of the coin is that resellers provide a valuable source of product long after retailers and LEGO themselves have stopped selling particular sets. It's inconceivable, for instance, that I would have been able to aquire all the Star Wars sets that I missed prior to emerging from my Dark Ages without the help of numerous resellers operating via eBay and Bricklink. Also, the accusation that resellers are all 'outsiders' milking the brand for profit is often wide of the mark, with many LEGO fans happy to indulge in a spot of reselling to help fund their expensive hobby. Then there are all those individuals who specialise in reselling LEGO elements, investing their time and effort into breaking down sets into their constituent parts and selling them via Bricklink; without this army of resellers, most of the magnificent MOCs that we admire online and at shows would never see the light of day.

Set 3450 Statue of Liberty (2000). RRP $198.99. Price now $2,181 (new), $1,054 (used)

The upshot of all this is that the reseller debate gets played out regularly and repeatedly across LEGO forums, and the discussion is remarkably polarized and not infrequently descends into downright hostility as a result of the strength of feeling on both sides. Regardless of which side of the debate you come down on, however, it's evident that reselling is here to stay, at least until such time as the bottom falls out of the market, and there's no indication that we're in any danger of that happening any time soon.

Set 8169 Lamborghini Gallardo LP 560-4 (2009). RRP $59.99. Price now $253 (new), $93 (used)

As LEGO has become increasingly popular, one interesting development has been the rise of the so-called 'LEGO investor', who treats LEGO sets as an investment for the future, akin to stocks and shares, or gold. This trend has undoubtedly been fuelled by the increasing attention afforded to the LEGO brand by the media, not to mention a succession of articles such as this one highlighting how certain LEGO sets have increased in value over time. It's against this backdrop that the BrickPicker website was founded back in 2011 by long-time LEGO fans Jeff and Ed Maciorowski. Having become aware of the rise in LEGO resale values, Jeff and Ed noticed that there was really no dedicated resource to help people figure out just how much their LEGO sets had appreciated in value over the years and so they set about building their own site to do just that, using actual sales data from the likes of eBay to compile the numbers. As interest in LEGO investing has grown, so the BrickPicker site has become increasingly popular, and it's since added a discussion forum and a classifieds section to the price guides which form the core of the site.

Set 10020 Santa Fe Super Chief (2002). RRP $39.99. Price now $265 (new), $203 (used)

I've met Jeff a few times during his occasional business trips to London, and in February of this year he approached me to let me know that he and Ed were working on a LEGO collecting and price guide. He asked if they could use a few of my photographs in the book, and I was happy to grant them permission. Fast forward nine months and a courtesy copy of  their book, The Ultimate Guide to Collectible LEGO Sets: Identification and Price Guide, dropped through my letterbox. You can see a cover shot and a selection of sample spreads below.

I have to admit that I didn't really know what to expect from the book; on the basis of the title I had visions of a stuffy encyclopaedia full of page upon page of set numbers, part counts, prices and Compound Annual Growth Rates. Thankfully that's not what I found when I dived in, however; while dense listings of prices and CAGR data do make an appearance at the end of the book, they comprise a relatively small proportion of the overall content.

The book is a paperback and has a footprint which isn't far short of A4 size. It feels well put-together overall, with sturdy binding and thick, glossy pages, and it's pretty substantial, weighing in at almost 900 grams and containing more than 250 pages. In terms of organisation, the book is divided into 28 chapters which cover the key LEGO themes since 2000. Star Wars gets two chapters, one for UCS sets and one for everything else, and there's also an 'Advanced Models' chapter featuring Modular Buildings and LEGO Exclusives, a chapter focusing on trains, a chapter covering sets released prior to 2000, and a chapter for themes not covered elsewhere plus promo items.

I'm pleased to report that it's a pretty good read. Within each chapter standout sets are discussed in an easy-going, conversational and at times humorous style, and while pricing data are included they don't dominate proceedings. Even though the book is more than 250 pages in length, LEGO's rich back-catalogue of releases means that it's plainly impossible to highlight every set, and as a consequence the authors have had to make a judgement call on which sets to focus on so some fans will inevitably be disappointed that one or more of their favourites aren't discussed in more detail. That having been said, since the choice of sets highlighted in the book is at least in part driven by resale value rather than just a subjective opinion of a set's merits, it could be argued that the set selection is less arbitrary and subjective than that seen in other books, for instance Dorling Kindersley's (admittedly excellent) recent Great LEGO Sets release.

If I have a content-related criticism it's that very little space is allocated to sets released before 2000 - the pre-2000 chapter consists of just 5 pages and only covers seven sets. The justification given for this is that sets released post-1999 are on a different level in terms of creativity and complexity; while that may be true, the book is ostensibly a price guide and the perceived complexity of a set therefore doesn't seem like a particularly logical reason to include, or exclude, it. That having been said, per my comments above regarding the difficulty of deciding which sets to include and which to omit, the authors clearly had to draw the line somewhere, and on the upside the cut-off means that the selection of post-1999 sets included in the book is more comprehensive and complete than it would otherwise have been.

Overall, the book is an unexpectedly easy read, and I think that it'd be of potential interest to LEGO fans in general and not just to LEGO investors and occasional resellers. Less than 20% of the 250+ pages are taken up by tables of pricing data, and I think that's a good thing; it's not so much that such information isn't interesting or useful, more that the data will presumably be out of date fairly quickly, plus up-to-date pricing data are available for free on the BrickPicker site anyway, so there seems little incentive to buy the book for the pricing data alone. Pleasingly, the majority of content consists of well-researched commentary on a large and diverse selection of LEGO sets written by a couple of knowledgeable AFOLs, so there's actually much to enjoy for the average LEGO fan, reseller or not - definitely worth a read.